In Zoetic Stage's Clark Gable Slept Here, the mystery begins before the show starts. Amateur sleuths in the audience may spend the moments before the curtain drawing their own conclusions about Robert F. Wolin's lavish, symmetrical set design — a penthouse suite in a posh Hollywood hotel, its color palette a modern mix of mauves and grays. They'll note the half-finished glass of champagne — or is it vodka? — on a small table, and the worn tennis shoes incongruously resting in a jumble on a countertop. And what are those phallic objects on the upturned bed sheet? Are those dildos? Yes, yes, they are.
Then the scene goes black, and we're held in suspense no longer. When the stage lights return, a naked, good-looking corpse (Robert Johnston) lies face-down on the patterned rug, while a quivering hotel maid (Vanessa Elise) stares at the horror. She doesn't speak English, we'll soon learn, but she lacks the words in any language to describe this fine mess. Luckily, Jarrod Hilliard (Michael McKeever) does, and as he strides in, dressed to the nines in a three-piece suit and black tie, he utters one of the great first lines in recent stage history: "Well, fuck me with a spoon." Leave it to the guy who wrote the play to give himself the best dialogue.
Jarrod is a Hollywood agent, and the suite belongs to his client Patrick Zane, a macho action star. It's the night of the Golden Globe Awards, where Patrick is favored to win a statuette for his breakthrough role as a serious actor. He's also straight. And married. It's an awfully inconvenient time for news of a dead male hooker to leak to TMZ. So the next hour and a half of this intermission-less show consists of cleanup and damage control, even as plot twists and sundry revelations lead to only more damage.
McKeever has stated he ranks Clark Gable Slept Here among his three best plays, and I agree. It's chock full of Hollywood insider wit — including punchy barbs about Brad Pitt's derrière and the sexual preferences of Scientologists — that won't be soon forgotten. Director Stuart Meltzer keeps McKeever's words flowing at a rapid patter evocative of the period in which Clark Gable found gainful employment. Preston Sturges, Howard Hawks, and Billy Wilder are the show's gonzo antecedents, even if McKeever's script uses more, um, colorful language than the censors permitted in the golden age of Hollywood. The action slows only when paroxysms of laughter would have drowned out the next line, or when Meltzer wisely inserts a moment of silence to milk a great line for all of its comic potency.
So while McKeever's words reflect a pop-savvy understanding of today's Hollywood, the rest of the show suggests the madcap spirit of yesteryear. As in those classic comedies, the characters are characters, more archetypes than people, played broadly and hilariously by a perfectly curated cast. Clay Cartland is the fusty hotel manager Gage Holland, who simply wants to do his job on one of the busiest nights of his year and is the kind of guy who is shocked — shocked, I tell you — to discover gambling goes on in his establishment. Cartland's comic timing is peerless as usual, whether he's coming into incidental contact with a dildo or trying to explain away a gunshot to his hotel staff. It never feels calculated, and it is always inspired.
Then there's Lela Elam, statuesque and busting out of a vivid red dress and glittery high-heels, as Morgan Wright, a fixer summoned from her Globes dinner table by Jarrod to dispose of his "problem." She's another larger-than-life figure, an almost mythical personification of Hollywood self-importance and superficiality, her actual job in the industry fittingly indeterminate. And you can tell Elam is loving every minute of it. In another role, her dramatic gestures would chew scenery and artificially overpower the action. Here, in a town that's fundamentally artificial, she's its grounding centerpiece.
But the show's biggest surprise is Vanessa Elise, a New World graduate and an actor who's relatively unknown on the South Florida theater scene. If this performance is any indication, she won't remain so for very long. Her maid's rambling, Spanish-language descriptions of discovering the prostitute's body received the evening's loudest eruptions of laughter. The nuances flew over my unilingual head, but Elise's talent for physical comedy — for the perfect gesture and facial expression at the perfect time — transcends language. She gets even better as the play progresses, but to say any more would spoil the fun.
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The conclusion to be reached through all of this madness is that Hollywood is an awfully dehumanizing place. Any character who isn't orbiting around a star — in other words, the maid, the hooker, the hotel manager — is invariably referred to by Morgan and Jarrod as an it, an object, a problem. Even the star, the unseen Patrick Zane, is, per Jarrod's blunt assessment, "not a person. He's a billion-dollar industry." Humanity, honesty, reality: These things must not interfere with the message, the costume, the illusion, even if it means — especially if it means — keeping an actor's true feelings in the celluloid closet.
McKeever's target, then, is a familiar one. Cynicism toward Hollywood has existed for as long as Hollywood has existed. For those of us aware that the Dream Factory is just that, none of the points raised in Clark Gable Slept Here will feel like a revelation. But the play is so beautifully articulated that I wouldn't mind experiencing the whole thing again and savoring lines such as this one, Jarrod's description of Zane's airheaded wife: "She's like a shampoo commercial, without the depth."
Hooray for Hollywood.